Unclean – that is what they called him. He did not remember his other name. They had cast him outside the city walls, left him in torn clothes many years back, after the priest had examined him and announced him to be “tamei” (Hebrew for unclean). Days passed by. Rejection. Frustration. Was it his fate? He longed for company. But isolation was the only company he had. He was commanded to announce himself “unclean, unclean” at the sight of a human being. But he did not follow the priest’s command that day. He saw a man climbing down the mountain. Or was he really a man? For he called him “Lord.” Perhaps, out of excitement to receive his healing somehow. He requested, “if you are willing, you can make me clean.” One last hope, one last possibility. The “Lord” stopped to hear him. He even touched him. Touch. This is what he has longed for all these years – a human touch. No, it was a divine touch. He was healed. No more unclean. No more isolated. He was touched, included, accepted, “cleansed” (find the story in Matthew 18:1-4).
Just one month after celebrating the birth of this Healer, the world will remember those still “lying outside the camp”, waiting to be healed, by observing the World Leprosy Day on January 25. Leprosy, though officially eliminated in 2005, is still one of the most chronic and marginalising diseases in today’s India. Some figures reveal its extent:
According to WHO’s report in 2011, 55% of leprosy cases in the world are in India, which still remains in the “pocket of high endemicity”.
1, 27, 000 new cases of leprosy were reported in India between 2010-11.
In 2013, there were 2, 15, 557 new cases of leprosy diagnosed globally, around one every two minutes. More than half of these new diagnoses were in India.
Effective treatment of leprosy has been available since 1982, but the above numbers state a different story.
Mother Teresa once said, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for, and deserted by everybody.” Leprosy is more than a health-related issue. It extends to one’s very existence in society. Lack of knowledge about it often results in stigmatisation and discrimination of the victims, and even their family-members. In India, it is often seen as a divine curse or punishment for past sins, and misunderstood as an incurable and highly infectious disease, spreading through even sharing water and food. Victims are often ostracised. Their prospects of education, employment, marriage and relationship with other members of the family are all affected. Their children are frequently shunned in schools.
This is discrimination at its worst, since most of the victims are already from marginalised and poorest of the poor communities. According Leprosy Trust Mission India, of all the new cases of leprosy between 2010-11, 14.31% were among Scheduled Tribes and 18.69% were among Scheduled Castes. Leprosy causes further loos of self-esteem and dignity, fear, shame and guilt. The lepers live as doubly outcastes in our society.
The Christian mission has always seen physical healing as intertwined with spiritual salvation. From Mother Teresa to Graham Staines, Christian missionaries have sacrificially and joyfully served the leprosy victims.
Wellesley Bailey was one such young man from Ireland who came to India in 1869, and began to work as a teacher in Ambala, Punjab. The widespread effects of leprosy left Baily and his wife, Alice devastated. They began to travel around and encourage people to support the work to help victims of leprosy. Their efforts led to founding of “The Mission to Lepers”, which was then changed to “The Leprosy Mission” (TLM). Since its first hospital in Purulia, West Bengal in 1888, TLM has served countless leprosy patients. At present, TLM reaches out to 26 leprosy-affected countries through its more than 200 projects.
Today, The Leprosy Mission Trust India (TLMTI) has 14 hospitals in India. Most of these hospitals have become open to treat general patients too. However, with changing times, TLMTI now focuses more on training and prevention, community and skill development, income generation for leprosy-affected people, and advocacy.
Thankfully, TLMTI is not alone in their efforts. Christian Aid Mission, Gospel for Asia, Good News India ministries, and myriad of other ministries and churches are doing all they can to eradicate leprosy. They often remain undervalued and lack resources to meet the challenge. But they stay on.
There were 61 ancient Jewish laws of defilement, leprosy being only second in seriousness, next to dead body. A leper wouldn’t come anywhere close within six feet of another human. During windy days, the restriction would be 150 feet. But it took one touch to break the barrier.
Dr. Paul Brand, a missionary doctor in Vellore and pioneer in developing tendon transfer technique to help to leprosy-patients, once asked why would Jesus touch the people he healed, many of whom were lepers. In answer he says, “He [Jesus] wanted those people, one by one, to feel his love and warmth and full identification with them. Jesus knew he could not readily demonstrate love to a crowd, for love usually involves touching.” That one touch of Jesus created enough ripples to inspire numerous lives over all these years to reach out and touch others in love. Will you touch someone with the love of Jesus today?